Standing on the shoulders of the masses


Standing on the shoulders of the masses

The public and the experts are key to beating Covid-19.

Norman Lewis

Topics Brexit Covid-19 Long-reads Politics Science & Tech UK

It might sound callous – indeed, perverse – to suggest that the coronavirus crisis represents a moment of historical clarification which we should welcome. But it does. It has begun to illuminate the pivotal and foundational role the masses play in developing society’s problem-solving expertise, and their restraining influence on elite hubris and self-indulgence.

This is a moment of clarity which might not be immediately obvious. It is always difficult to recognise an historical shift, particularly when you are living through it. We all succumb to living in the past, fighting today’s battles with yesterday’s tools and prejudices – especially when the present appears to be so threatening and out of control.

If we are able to put politics to one side (difficult) and stand back from the immediacy of the apocalyptic doom-mongering (even more difficult), it should be clear that something new and unfamiliar is taking place. Covid-19 is infecting more than people. It has turned existing orthodoxies on their heads – like the idea that those in power and in control of society always act rationally and in the interests of society, as opposed to the claimed irrationality of the masses.

Another, and the focus of this article, is the role of experts and the idea that technocratic managerialism is necessary and inevitable because of the complexity of modern society. The coronavirus crisis has in fact brought to the fore the intimate connection between the masses and experts, and the mediation of this relationship through democracy.

This has been most evident in the different ways in which the UK government initially reacted to the crisis compared to our European neighbours, particularly Italy, France and Spain. Instead of a rush to draconian lockdowns, prime minister Boris Johnson began with a public-facing, measured and mature appeal to reason as he outlined a plan based upon scientific evidence.

Why was there this difference? Well, because of Brexit. Not because we are not part of the EU, but because, in the UK, the influence of the demos is now palpable and real. Boris was not simply addressing the media in the room at his early press conferences. He was also addressing the demos, who reasserted themselves more than three years ago and have continued to shape politics ever since.

The unseen presence of the demos initially acted as a restraint on the instinctive rush to authoritarianism we have seen elsewhere. The fact that Johnson now seems to have been forced to go much further, and has succumbed to the macabre pressure by the media to be seen to be acting, should not detract from the significance of this all for the future.

The past, as they say, is another country. What is unfamiliar and now casts a new shadow over past assumptions is the ascendancy of the demos. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the role of experts.

Now, the early press conferences where Boris was flanked by the government’s chief science adviser, Patrick Vallance, and chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, looked like many past press conferences. Here was a prime minister flanked by ‘his’ experts. But when the experts began explaining the complexities of dealing with an unknown virus, we saw, in public, for the first time in many years, what true expertise looks like, with all its inherent ambiguities and uncertainties.

The experts, just like Boris, were not simply addressing the media in the room. They were addressing society as a whole. They revealed that they are not merely Boris’s experts, but ours too; that, ultimately, their authority and legitimacy depend upon their ability to solve this problem, not just for a Tory government, but for humanity as a whole.

This is a moment of clarity. Experts are not owned by governments. They are owned by us, the people – by humanity as a whole. The politicisation of expertise, whereby politicians have hidden behind so-called experts to avoid public accountability, has not elevated experts – it has abused them. It has forced experts to go beyond their areas of expertise to suit political expediency. This politicisation of expertise has denigrated expertise and the expert.

But what was demonstrated that day in Downing Street, even in the midst of a real health crisis, was that experts are rooted in solving the problems of society as a whole; that the mass of humanity, its needs and wants, remain the infrastructural foundation of all expertise. This is what creates and sustains expertise, and what ultimately lends it its authority and legitimacy in society (insofar as experts succeed at solving problems).

Covid-19 has unexpectedly revealed the reality that the masses are pivotal to society’s expertise. What makes this so welcome is that this role is misunderstood and mystified, precisely because, in normal circumstances, it is hidden from history.

It is easy to understand why. In the first instance, the spotlight of history inevitably focuses on the expert, the ingenious inventor or the brilliant scientist, not the masses. We are all familiar with names like Da Vinci, Galileo, Newton, Curie, Einstein, Edison, and more recently Jobs. These were all extraordinary individuals whose differing achievements changed the world for the better.

But these individuals were just a few in a broader swathe of humanity that sought to discover or invent the future. And their success could only emerge because of the social division of labour existing during their lifetimes.

Sir Isaac Newton was in fact wrong and one-sided when he famously declared in 1675: ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ In reality, his genius also crucially rested on the shoulders of the masses whose labours gave him, and others, the freedom to follow their curiosity, to try to make sense of mankind’s position within nature. Without the reproduction of material conditions of life by the faceless masses, society would have been robbed of these great men’s destinies and achievements.

But the masses also play another critical, but indirect, role in all human discovery and invention. For the truly great thinkers have themselves always appreciated that humanity in the abstract was sitting on their shoulders, constantly and critically looking at their endeavours. These are the same masses that have perched invisibly on the shoulders of Johnson and ‘his’ experts today.

The truly great thinkers, inventors and experts have always understood the debt of gratitude they owe to those whose labours have made theirs possible. Not being burdened with the day-to-day production of the means of life imposed a deep sense of responsibility on them. For all their egos and dreams of self-grandeur they were sincerely motivated to answer life’s big questions not simply for themselves, nor for their careers or paymasters, but for all of mankind.

Take Albert Einstein, who remarked upon the contrast between his ‘passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility’ and his ‘pronounced lack of need for direct contact with other human beings and human communities’. Or Alexander Fleming, the accidental discoverer of penicillin, who only did so because he had devoted years of his life to finding the means of fighting bacterial infections, which he considered the most dangerous illnesses threatening the human race.

Here we see a deep sense of accountability, a sense that their endeavours should improve the condition of their fellow human beings. The presence of the masses weighs upon the heroic endeavours of society’s experts – past, present and future.

The masses are not a blank canvas on which the destinies of great men are drawn. Instead, the emergence of new social needs and wants has always forced discoverers to shift their focus, to the ends of improving human society. Meeting changing needs and wants is the unstated driver of progress. This is why change is never random nor something that can be imposed simply because experts say so.

The insight this affords, which we should not lose sight of in our present circumstances, is that the remarkable knowledge, science and technological expertise we enjoy today is rooted in our sociality. The capacity to solve problems, to explore and to discover, is deeply rooted in what it means to be human. This is the everlasting outcome of the social interaction between brilliant individuals and mass needs and wants. From the moment we got down from the trees, stood upright, and began to challenge the limits nature imposed on us, mankind has had to develop a social division of labour, to cooperate and to specialise to ensure our survival as a species.

This also needs to be kept in mind, because it helps demystify expertise and the expert. Progress has always required specialisation. And while this has given us skills and some remarkable talent historically, we mustn’t forget that specialisation represents the curtailment of the potential abilities of every person taken individually. Expertise is a socially liberating force. But it is also an individually inhibiting freedom; ‘not a virtue but an unavoidable evil’, as the great Austrian physicist Schrödinger put it.

It is perhaps the cruellest irony of the human condition. For some to stand, as Plato stated, ‘under the shelter of the wall’, others had to build that wall. In Plato’s time, it was slaves who provided that shelter. In ours, it is a more specialised and technologically determined division of labour. The deprivation of freedom for the many has been a condition for the limited freedom of some to dream, experiment, even fail, so that the many can eventually be lifted out of darkness, drudgery and deprivation. The history of mankind’s achievements rests on the crushed souls of millions of unsung generations.

There is an unwritten dependence, a spontaneously reproduced cooperative dynamic, that underpins modern civilisations. But mutual dependence does not imply equivalence. Expertise is hierarchical, specific, and so it should be. There is an inherent difference between knowledge disciplines and skills, between mental and manual labours.

In the field of knowledge there is inevitably inequality. But we overcome this inherent dislocation through the sphere of politics; through the beautiful simplicity of the idea that, in a democracy, everyone’s vote, regardless of what skill or expertise they might possess, counts the same – from lords to street cleaners to scientists to bricklayers to astronauts to nurses.

Democracy provides the mechanism for negotiating the inherent contradiction between political equality and knowledge inequality. It is the sphere in which whatever expertise we have been forced to adopt is jettisoned in favour of what we all have in common – our humanity, our reason and judgement, our universal needs and wants, regardless of race or sex. Democracy is thus the condition upon which society’s division of labour and its expertise is ultimately legitimised and accepted. It is how we hold not just politicians but also experts to account.

Yet despite the contradictions, human expertise must be vigorously defended and celebrated. For after all, the curtailment of individual freedom, which underpins all expertise, has been a condition for liberating humanity from the biological limitations nature imposed upon us as a species. So it has been, and certainly so will it be, in the battle against Covid-19.

Perhaps it is now clearer why the coronavirus crisis is a moment of clarity to be welcomed. It has demonstrated the intimate connection between democracy and the legitimisation of expertise. The masses have forced their way into the public realm in ways that few could have imagined a year ago. Their presence has been a restraint, a reminder of where the authority of expertise ultimately rests. The genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back regardless of how this crisis unfolds.

Whatever happens from here on in, the emphasis has to be on the need for society to build more walls so that a lot more of humanity can participate and shine under their shelter.

We need to extend our expertise. But we also need more scepticism, the questioning of new orthodoxies, and more demands for public accountability of politicians and experts. Because this, and only this, will enable us to develop the kind of problem-solving skills we will need in the 21st century. It is also what will provide expertise with the authority, legitimacy and the trust that is so central to its proper functioning, but which could so easily be undermined in the apocalyptical rush to authoritarianism.

Dr Norman Lewis is a writer and managing director of Futures Diagnosis.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Brexit Covid-19 Long-reads Politics Science & Tech UK


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